Paul Elard Cooley on The Genre Trap

Today’s guest post comes from the Fiendmaster, Paul Elard Cooley. Paul’s a friend, and a talented writer and podcaster. Learn more about his work at shadow publications.

Genre is a trap. Genre is a curse word that destroys the idea of the content itself. Using a catch-all phrase to describe an entire work of literature is inadequate at best…But what’s the alternative?

Genre. It’s this annoying noun that is supposed to indicate what a movie, song, book, play, or other “artistic” work is about. We poor pathetic humans love to assign labels to anything, but when it concerns our entertainment, our passion borders on homicidal rage.

What is a genre? If you look at online stores such as bn.com, amazon.com, iBooks and the like, their searching mechanisms are usually by “genre.” Horror, fantasy, mystery, suspense, romance, science-fiction, and blah blah blah. The idea that a single word can somehow sum up the content of a literary work is not only short-sighted, but unrealistic.

Yet we writers are constantly faced with this problem. When someone finds out I’m a professional writer, they ask what genre I write. More and more, I’m finding it difficult to answer that question. What I consider to be “horror” fiction tends more toward the psychological, old-school traditional type horror stories rather than zombies, vampires, werewolves, and chainsaw wielding mass murderers.

But see, that’s the problem. The glut of movies in the Friday The 13th/Halloween vein have corrupted almost two generations worth of readers into thinking that’s what horror is. So if I say I’m a horror writer, people immediately assume my stories are splashed with the blood of drug-using, sexified, high school partiers. This supposition couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’ve been told to describe myself as a writer of psychological thriller/suspense stories. But again, what is that? What does it mean?

Let’s muddy the waters further. My new series, Garaaga’s Children, takes place in historical settings, fusing elements of fantasy, horror, and myth. How does one describe that?

Genre is a trap. Genre is a curse word that destroys the idea of the content itself. Using a catch-all phrase to describe an entire work of literature is inadequate at best.

But what’s the alternative? I’ve heard people describe stories as very “Hemmingway”, “Carver-esque,” or “O’Henry-ied.” To a reader who’s not familiar with these authors’ fine works, such words mean nothing. They are just noise. Whatever they might mean to you personally, they’re just gibberish to others.

When writers submit a story to a publisher or self-publish, they are forced to choose a primary genre for their work. For a so-called horror writer, this narrows your potential audience. For instance, there are many fewer markets available, be they publishers, e-zines, magazines, or agents, for stories in the “horror” genre. Compared to science fiction, romance, and fantasy, horror is the tiny shelf hidden in the back of the bookstore that is ever-dwindling in its number of titles.

If you want to sell a book and describe it as “horror,” it almost invariably must use tropes such as vampires, zombies, or werewolves. Books by Scott Sigler, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, are instead found in the thriller section, or perhaps even mystery. Why? Because the publishers and bookstores want to make sure they get as wide an audience as possible.

The genre trap is one that narrows your potential audience. That is reality. If I describe “Garaaga’s Children” as fantasy, however, it’s immediately going to place it in the realm of sword and sorcery. At least that’s what comes to my mind when I hear the word “fantasy.” Perhaps that’s because in my youth, that’s what fantasy was.

So how do I describe Garaaga’s Children to someone? It has mythological elements stolen from various cultures. Its stories take place in pre-history, Akkad, Babylon, Ptolemic Egypt, the first Crusade, The French Revolution, the American silver rush of the old west, the 1990s, and in the America of today. How do I describe it? How?

When you radically cross genres, you create many problems for yourself in selling your work. Should that stop a writer? Absolutely not. In fact, I think the “mashup” produces some of the most exciting stories in literature today. But publishers, readers, and the industry as a whole, must get past the idea that a single word or phrase can convey the contents of a book or the ideas it contains.

Be on the lookout for the genre trap. Be aware of it. The next time you’re browsing the online stores or even in the brick and mortar bookstore, pay attention to where you go and how you judge whether or not you’re interested in a book. You might be surprised at how biased you’ve become based on the section the writer’s work is placed in.



Mr. Cooley is an independant author and podcaster in Horror and (sorry, Paul :) Dark Fantasy.

Learn more about Paul E Cooley at Shadow Publications or follow the Fiendmaster on twitter.

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